Four by Laura Lippman

In the mood for a new mystery series, I decided to check out the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippman. They’re compulsively readable, inspiring me to proceed to the next in the series practically immediately, but I found I hadn’t much to say about each. Therefore, a column of brief reviews was clearly called for!

baltimorebluesBaltimore Blues introduces us to 29-year-old Baltimore native Tess Monaghan, underemployed former newspaper reporter and fitness buff, who undertakes a surveillance job for a rowing buddy whose fiancée has been acting weird. There wouldn’t be much of a book if this assignment didn’t turn out to be more than she bargained for, and in due course, a famous local lawyer is dead and the rowing buddy the chief suspect.

Now retained by the buddy’s lawyer, Tess continues to snoop about. She’s just supposed to be finding enough information to achieve reasonable doubt, but is instead driven to solve the mystery. And, ultimately, she does. It was an outcome that I didn’t expect, and the various plot threads and loose ends are wrapped up reasonably tidily, though the suggestion that a second killer is still roaming free was relegated to one blink-and-you-miss-it sort of line.

Tess herself is a little bit generic at this point, but she’s likeable enough. It’s interesting that she’s an investigator who isn’t technically tied to law enforcement, so she’s not obliged to divulge full details about crimes, with the flip side that because she lacks status she probably couldn’t divulge anything anyway without irrefutable proof. Baltimore emerges as a character of its own, too, and I loved that there was a Homicide: Life on the Street shoutout. Actually, there was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reference, too. Does Lippman know how to woo me, or what?

charmcityCharm City is the second in the Tess Monaghan series, set about five months after the first book. Tess has both a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend for the first time in two years, but her boss encourages her to accept an offer to investigate how an inflammatory story, originally not on the printing schedule, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. Eventually, deaths ensue. Meanwhile, some shady guys hospitalize her uncle Spike and stalk Tess and her family members.

The good things about this sophomore outing revolve around Tess and her personal relationships. She comes into sharper focus as a character, first of all, but also makes some serious changes and/or mistakes in her personal life. And yet, this doesn’t read like one of those chick lit mystery series—my mind goes immediately to Meg Cabot’s dreadful Size 12 Is Not Fat—where the protagonist seems too easily distracted by the male characters. Tess just seems… normal.

On the negative side, the subplot (involving the aforementioned shady guys) was a real yawner and there were a couple of instances where twists were really obvious to the reader, making Tess appear incredibly slow on the uptake. And though the final big reveal did surprise me, in retrospect it shouldn’t have, because it was essentially the same gimmick used in the first book! Is a pattern forming? As I head into book three, I will definitely be looking for a certain type of character and setting my suspicious sights on them from the start.

Overall, Charm City was a little disappointing, but certainly not bad. Onward ho!

butchershillIn Butchers Hill, Tess has set up shop as a private investigator in a not-so-great part of town. Her first two clients are looking for children—one wants to make amends to the witnesses of a crime he committed five years ago, while another wants to know that the daughter she put up for adoption is doing alright. Neither client has been completely honest with Tess, however.

This was a really interesting installment of the series. I appreciate that Lippman was able to create multiple African-American characters who feel like full-fledged, sympathetic individuals (though I do wonder what an African-American reader would make of them). There’s commentary here on race relations in Baltimore, among other things, but it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. I also like that Tess is not strictly a homicide investigator, though her cases have all involved murder eventually.

Speaking of murder, after Charm City, I was a little worried that it would be easy to predict the perpetrators in subsequent books, but actually, I didn’t see this one coming. And that’s a good thing, though the reason why I didn’t was that it was a rather crackalicious twist. Despite that (and the one aspect of the ending that I predicted), the conclusion to this one is surprisingly affecting. I hope some of these new characters stick around.

inbigtroubleIn Big Trouble takes Tess away from her hometown of Baltimore and into the unfamiliar environment of San Antonio, Texas. When she receives an anonymous letter that Crow, her former boyfriend, is in big trouble in Texas, Tess ends up contracted by his parents to track him down. She finds Crow in fairly short order, but he is greatly changed and is also involved with a crazy young woman whose influential local family is tied to a notorious murder 21 years ago.

This was a bit of a weird one. I can’t say I disliked it, or that I predicted anything about it, but Tess is so off-balance personally for the duration that it sort of feels like the story never really gets… grounded, or something. Unlike the others in the series, I was able to set this one aside for a long time—like, weeks—and didn’t feel any particular urge to get back to it. That said, I did think the San Antonio setting was portrayed well, and Lippman successfully instilled a serious hankering for some authentic Mexican food.

In the end, I’m enjoying the Tess Monaghan series quite a lot! I’m going to take a break here for a bit, but I do intend to return to the series in the near future.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman: B

From the back cover:
Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who—or what—could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?

Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been, why has she waited so long to come forward?

In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?

Review:
On a mystery level, this book succeeds. Initially one believes in the claims of the disoriented woman, but as the story is revealed, and subsequent details come to light, doubt creeps in. The story is well-paced, unpredictable, and makes sense, even with the jumping about in time. I found myself taking slightly longer routes home just so I could hear more of it and was not disappointed in the conclusion.

The characters are more of a mixed bag. The Bethany family itself—daughters Heather and Sunny and parents Dave and Miriam—were by far the most defined. Significant time is spent on showing them before the abduction and also on the relationship of the parents afterwards. In some aspects, I was reminded of The Lovely Bones, as it deals similarly with a family coping after the disappearance of a daughter.

The present day cast—the detectives, the social worker, the lawyer—involved with determining the veracity of the woman’s story are more nebulous, some of them downright flat. I sincerely hated the primary detective, Kevin Infante. He’s incredibly crude, profane, and misogynistic.

What the Dead Know is ultimately worth reading. It was never boring, and though I never mustered any particular care for any of the characters, I enjoyed the suspenseful plot. I don’t see myself reading it again or acquiring my own copy, but I’d probably read more by this author.